Christie, vowing robust leadership, launches bid for president

JChristie01-d
NJ Gov. Chris Christie acknowledges the cheers as he and his family -- wife Mary Pat (behind the Governor) and children (from left) Patrick, Sarah, Bridget (front) and Andrew -- enter the Livingston High School gym, Livingston, NJ, June 30, 2015 where he announced his candidacy for the GOP nomination for President in 2016. ( CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer )

LIVINGSTON, N.J. - Gov. Christie launched a bid for the Republican presidential nomination Tuesday, betting that his blunt brand of politics and promise to campaign on big ideas will overcome conservative skepticism and a vulnerable record as the steward of New Jersey's flagging economy.

On a stage in the center of the gymnasium of the high school he attended in this North Jersey suburb, Christie - with his wife, Mary Pat, and their four children by his side - invoked lessons taught by his strong-willed mother and his parents' successful efforts to improve their lives, the sort of possibility that Christie argued has waned.

He depicted a country beset by anxiety because of dysfunction in Washington, criticizing both President Obama and the GOP-controlled Congress.

"But I'm here today to tell you that anxiety can be swept away by strong leadership and decisiveness to lead America again," Christie said to the applause of about 1,000 supporters.

By Tuesday night, Christie, lagging in the national polls, was in New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary state on which he has pinned his presidential hopes. He declared to the crowd in the wood-paneled Sandown Town Hall, "I want to be the next president of the United States, and I intend to win this election."

Earlier, in a forceful, 27-minute speech in Livingston, Christie emphasized his modest upbringing and the regular-guy persona that helped him win two gubernatorial elections in a heavily Democratic state.

Some in the Republican Party see him as a natural foil to Obama, whom they dismiss as an aloof intellectual unwilling to build relationships and find compromise in Washington.

Christie resolved to confront what he described as some the nation's biggest problems - entitlement spending, a stagnant economy, and tax policy that hurts American competitiveness.

But he faces challenges in convincing voters he's the one to solve those problems. Many conservatives also are unconvinced he is one of them, especially on social issues, though he has defunded Planned Parenthood and thwarted some gun control measures sent to him by the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

The New Jersey governor's star, which rose among Republicans not long after he took office in 2010 and nationally following Hurricane Sandy, dimmed in the wake of the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal that erupted in early 2014.

Fifty-five percent of GOP primary voters nationwide say they cannot see themselves supporting Christie, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released last week. In New Jersey, his approval ratings have sunk to new lows, falling to 30 percent in a poll last week.

On athletic fields outside the school where he spoke in the morning, protesters gathered, representing an array of causes and grievances that have trailed Christie as governor: teachers, environmental activists, homeowners upset by slow post-Sandy recovery efforts.

But the governor's backers are confident in his chances. Bobbie Kilberg, a Virginia-based fund-raiser, said Christie's willingness to take strong policy positions and skill as a retail politician will serve him well in debates and in New Hampshire, a state seen as critical to his chances.

Christie hinted at the stakes as he closed out his town-hall-style meeting in Sandown on Tuesday night. If elected president, he told the crowd, "you can be guaranteed I'll be saying to myself, 'Thank you, New Hampshire.' "

The governor is to remain in the state until Saturday, with a schedule that includes two more town-hall meetings, two endorsement events, house parties, and a Fourth of July parade.

"There is no front-runner," Kilberg said of the GOP contenders. "This thing is wide open."

Christie is the latest to join a field that already includes more than a dozen declared candidates - and he won't be the last. Ohio Gov. John Kasich is set to announce a campaign July 21, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is also expected to run.

"I like that he speaks up, and I like what he did with the teachers' union," said Frank Catizoe, 70, of Salem, N.H., a retiree who used to work in newspaper distribution. During the meeting, Christie had noted that teachers' unions had protested his presidential announcement, saying, "The unions want them to work less and get paid more, that's the problem in this country."

Brenda Merrill, 42, who works at a macaroon shop in Sandown, said she related to Christie's complaints about his daughter's Notre Dame tuition, which he cites while arguing that colleges should provide more transparency in bills so they can be pressured to curb costs.

Christie has "a great handle" on what a "working person" needs, Merrill said.

Christie contrasted what he described as his record of working with Democrats to reform teacher tenure laws and public workers' pension and health benefits systems with intractable dysfunction in Washington.

"I am now ready to fight for the people of the United States of America," he said, drawing cheers from the invitation-only crowd inside the Livingston High School gym.

Though he blamed both parties for failures, he reserved his harshest scorn for Obama, whom Christie accused of living "in his own world, not our world."

"After seven years of a weak and feckless foreign policy run by Barack Obama, we'd better not turn it over to his second mate, Hillary Clinton," he added, taking a swipe at the Democratic front-runner for 2016.

In 2011, Christie had turned away entreaties he run for president, saying he was not ready.

On Tuesday, he told the crowd in Livingston: "I believe in my heart that I am ready."

Born in Newark, Christie, 52, focused Tuesday on his working-class roots, describing how his father, Bill, an accountant, put himself through college at night while working at a Breyer's ice cream plant. His late mother, Sandy, who came from a family of Sicilian immigrants, was a longtime employee of the Livingston Board of Education and did not attend college.

Christie, whose family moved to Livingston when he was 5, developed an early interest in politics. In 1977, he volunteered for Thomas H. Kean's gubernatorial campaign. He was class president at Livingston High, where he was also a varsity baseball catcher. For a yearbook quote he chose: "Great Hopes Make Great Men."

Banners of the baseball team's conference championship teams, including Christie's in 1980, hung from the rafters in the gym where Christie spoke.

At the University of Delaware, Christie met his future wife, Mary Pat Foster, a Paoli, Pa., native. After Christie went on to Seton Hall Law School, they married during one of his spring breaks.

The Christies have four children: Andrew, 21; Sarah, 19; Patrick, 14; and Bridget, 12.

Upon his graduation from Seton Hall in 1987, Christie landed a job at the law firm of Dughi Hewit, working in securities law and appeals. He also got involved in politics, making a key connection in Bill Palatucci, a Republican who would join Christie at the law firm, assist in his rise, and become one of his closest advisers. In 1992, Christie joined Palatucci in backing President George H.W. Bush's reelection campaign.

Christie stumbled at the outset of his political career, losing state races, but stayed involved in the political world, starting a lobbying division at his firm with Palatucci. When George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, Christie again joined Palatucci in supporting the campaign.

Jeb Bush, son of one president and brother of another, is also seeking the GOP nomination in 2016.

In 2001, the second President Bush selected Christie as his pick for U.S. attorney for New Jersey. The role allowed him to build his profile by prosecuting corruption and terrorism cases.

Of late, Christie has highlighted his resumé as a federal prosecutor after the Sept. 11 attacks, arguing in favor of U.S. intelligence efforts while claiming experience using the Patriot Act.

Following Obama's election in November 2008, Christie resigned and soon after declared his intent to challenge then-Gov. Jon S. Corzine.

While outspent by the wealthy Democratic governor, Christie won the 2009 race.

His first term was marked by bipartisan accomplishments brokered with the state's top elected Democrat, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), including requiring public workers to pay more toward their pensions, limits on police and fire salary increases reached through arbitration, and a property-tax cap.

It was also interrupted by Sandy, which devastated the Jersey Shore in late 2012, but helped grow Christie's celebrity and paved the way for his November 2013 reelection. His approval ratings soared after the storm, topping 70 percent.

A year and a half into his second term, Christie's ratings have tumbled. His fortunes turned after the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal blew up in early 2014, casting the pall of a federal investigation over his presidential ambitions.

A former Christie aide, Bridget Anne Kelly, and a former appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey have been charged, while another Port Authority official - Livingston native David Wildstein - has pleaded guilty. Christie has not been charged.

Christie's second term has also been challenged by slow economic growth in New Jersey, a succession of credit-rating downgrades, a shuttering of casinos in Atlantic City, and his administration's backtracking on the first-term pension reform deal he had celebrated.

Revenue shortfalls resulted in Christie's cutting payments he had promised into the pension system, drawing a lawsuit from public sector unions that the governor won in court.

He has been unable to gain support from unions or the Legislature to make more changes to the system, which has a $40 billion unfunded liability.

In Livingston on Tuesday, Christie said he had led New Jersey "to a better day," and that having "stood up to economic calamity and unprecedented disaster," he was qualified to be president.

In New Hampshire, where he began Tuesday's meeting by running through his proposals for overhauling federal entitlement programs and simplifying the tax code, Christie devoted less time to New Jersey.

But he didn't stray from playing up the personal.

"You'll never say, 'I don't know what he thinks.' You'll never say, 'I don't know how he feels,' " Christie said.


mhanna@phillynews.com

856-779-3232 @maddiehanna

www.philly.com/christiechronicles